http://imgur.com/gallery/TWhC7

“Be afraid of the unknown!”, we are constantly told. How did this message seep into so many of our minds? A couple of weeks ago I looked up to see clouds in the shape of two elephants – I saw a mother elephant walking behind her baby elephant. The baby’s face was full of curiosity and wonder as she was running ahead to explore the unknown. The mother’s face was full of fear, mouth open as if calling out to tell her baby stop moving forward into the unknown. The mother elephant was teaching her baby to replace curiosity of the unknown with fear of the unknown. These elephants in the clouds are a beautiful parable for what we are all constantly being taught by our culture.

We live in a culture that controls us by keeping us in a constant state of unease, repeatedly telling us that something scary might happen if we stray away from what we already know. In this toxic culture we are taught to always feel the sense of fear nipping at our toes. Paradoxically, in my experiences it is the people with the most physical safety and financial security who are often the most afraid. Fear is no longer an emotion reserved for occasions like being chased by a bear. Fear is now an emotion associated with things like peering into our own minds, or – even worse! – allowing others to know who we really are. Fear is even an emotion that arises for many when they even consider giving themselves permission to relax. My friends, this is not a natural way to be!

Many of us have lost contact with one of the central features of being human – to be curious, to find happiness in the journey, to grow new possibilities by exploring the unknown (both inside and out). Part of how our culture lures us into feeling a constant background noise of unease is by tricking us into believing that we can find safety in our lives. If we just cross every “t” and dot every “i” then we can finally relax and get to know ourselves, having arrived at the finish line of knowing everything is going to be okay. We lose contact with our drive to be curious each time we believe that the oasis of security exists just beyond the next ridge in our life.

Here is what I can assure to you. Life is indeed not safe. You are definitely not going to make it out alive. Everything is not going to be okay. As a mentor used to say, “We are all pre-diagnosis.” We will all move through times in our lives where we experience grief and loss and uncertainty. That is unavoidable. But if we are protective of our natural drive to be curious, we can also experience awe, gratitude, enoughness, connection, and contentment. We must – at least occasionally – allow our curiosity to lure us into running straight ahead into the unknown (possibly with eyes a bit wider than usual and hands held over our heads to eradicate the last traces of fear in our hearts – at least that is my preferred method). Lucky for us, we are surrounded by examples of how to honor our curiosity over fear. If you don’t have a baby in your life to show you the way then a quick internet search for videos of your favorite baby animal will provide you with an equally wise guide.

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be a skeptical consumer of science

Scientists Are Not Soothsayers or Truth Sayers

I love behavioral science, I love how many people it can help, and I am grateful to have been trained as a behavioral scientist.  I want to start there, because for the rest of this post I am going to trash on the way behavioral science is presented in our culture.  Our culture confuses knowledge with wisdom.  In this knowledge-heavy culture, we have started turning to the scientists as keepers of knowledge about our souls.  This habit of seeing scientists as experts on our souls makes for a culture that is completely FUBARed.

Here is a current favorite example of this bad habit.  UCLA is publicizing a recent study that has found women show fluctuations in their attractions to masculine characteristics over their menstrual cycle.  The headline reads “What do women want? It depends on the time of the month.”  We are reassured:

“Women sometimes get a bad rap for being fickle, but the changes they experience are not arbitrary,” said Martie Haselton, a professor of psychology and communication studies at UCLA and the paper’s senior author. “Women experience intricately patterned preference shifts even though they might not serve any function in the present.”

I am going to give three reasons why this study description should make you skeptical.  In truth there are at least three dozen reasons why you should be skeptical.

1.  Be skeptical of how scientific studies are summarized in the media.

Who said women are fickle?  I didn’t.  Did you?   And why are changes in some women’s attractions over the month getting a bad rap.  And who said fluctuations in desire is appropriately described as fickle???  That’s a can of worms that I shall leave closed for now.

We are told that “women” get a bad rap for being fickle, and are then reassured that the bad rap is false.  Hooray – the changes in attraction over the month are “not arbitrary”! Rejoice!   But what the heck does “arbitrary” mean?  That word is just a judgment from someone playing expert over another person.

People, we live in a cause and effect universe. (At least our perceptions live there.  Let’s leave quantum physics aside for now.)  In this universe, using the word “arbitrary” in a scientific context is usually just a word meaning, “I think I can understand everything and I don’t understand that pattern yet so I am declaring that there is no pattern.  I decree that your behaviors are arbitrary.”

2. Be skeptical of someone scientifically validating your experiences.

In this UCLA article, no one is claiming to have said the changes were arbitrary.  We are only reassured that “the changes they experience are not arbitrary.” That word “arbitrary” only serves to prime our minds to believe we need a scientific explanation for our experiences in order for our experiences to be valid.  In this case, it’s “fickle” for a woman to have fluctuations in attraction without a scientific explanation.  But don’t worry, “women”!  Scientists have saved the day!  You may now accept your fluctuating desires as scientifically validated!  Well, your desires are scientifically validated so long as these desires are for masculine characteristics that shift predictably with your menstrual cycle.

3.  Be skeptical of how scientists hide the true variation that exists in the humans around us.

I don’t know you, but I am guessing that you have some pretty varied personalities in your family.  What if I came along with my measuring stick and measured every single person in your extended family on their musical preferences?  I could then publish a study declaring that your family has a bad rap for being fickle in your changing desires for music but I can disprove this misunderstanding with science.

For my family the headline might read, “The Ulman family gets a bad rap for being fickle in their musical tastes, but their tastes aren’t arbitrary.  They listen to electronic dance music with a predictable pattern linked to the winter music festival schedule.”

I could scientifically validate this finding as true because my sister and I like EDM, but this study would hardly capture my father’s tastes for Barbara Streisand.

This UCLA study is doing this same error when describing “women” as if such a varied group can be described so easily.  Who the heck are these “women” who are all so similar to each other? I know women who are attracted to feminine characteristics, or who are asexual, or who are attracted to folks who identify as neither male or female.  I know some women who don’t have a uterus.  And I know a lot of women who have had shifting attractions over time.

Martie Haselton seems to have selected studies that only look at women with similar bodies and similar desires.  My guess is that she was limited in the data she could consider.  I bet if we looked at the original studies we would see that many women were disqualified to participate, thus narrowing group variation.  Haselton’s study actually found considerable variation even with these biased samples, as acknowledged when the article says ‘The strength of women’s preference shift proved to be statistically significant, although “small” to “medium” in size, relative to most findings in the field.”

Be skeptical of studies that are summarized in ways that suppresses true group variation.  The scientific research might even be sound, but by the time it reaches our eyes and ears the findings have become greatly skewed.

Be Skeptical of the Science of You

I am not critiquing this scientist. Dr. Haselton is not being sinister in her actions. She is just doing her job, and probably doing it well. But that does not mean we should not still be skeptical of the story that is being painted for us.

I am not anti-science.  I love science.  I am critiquing how science is misunderstood in our culture, particularly as scientific findings are described in the media. You are actually thinking like a scientist when you develop the habit of being skeptical of the numbers being presented to you.  Question them, question the assumptions behind them, and don’t confuse numbers on a page with a truth about you.

Always remember that scientists know numbers.  They don’t know you.  It doesn’t matter if you find yourself sexually attracted to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches once every 3-7 years.  There is no study to explain why that might be, but it is valid because it happens to you.

Looking to scientists for validation in WHY you are can slow down your journey in learning WHO you are.

You are the Only Expert on You

We live in a culture that has told you and me that we can learn about ourselves by looking outside of ourselves.  This myth has profoundly impaired our ability to do the hard work of learning who we are by looking inward – with curiosity and without judgment.  Some of us can barely stand to sit still for one minute and look inwards.  This difficulty looking inward does not come from what is there to find. This difficulty looking inward comes from living in a culture that has told you comparison is a method of learning about yourself.  Comparison turned inward becomes judgment.  And there is plenty in there to judge if you think judging is the thing to be done.  When we judge what is inside we can become overwhelmed and so we have developed the habit of looking outside of ourselves to learn who we are.

Making matters worse, if you have lost the ability to look inward with curiosity instead of judgment, then you have been disconnected from your emotions.  You might therefore live only in your reason mind, trying to Figure-Things-Out rather than stay open and curious about what patterns might arise in your mind and in your life.  You have succumbed to our cultural demands to hold reason on a pedestal, while avoiding emotions like that one relative who is always saying just the wrong thing at the wrong time.  This over-attachment to reason and discomfort with emotions makes for a very wonky internal compass.

Without this compass, we look outward to try and Figure-Things-Out.  We seek reassurance that we are “normal.”  And in a culture that confuses knowledge with wisdom, we have started turning to the scientists as people who can tell us if we are okay as we are. 

The truth is that you are okay right now AND you are a ball of contradictions and hopes and dreams and fears and desires at the same time.  You have a complicated story that gets minimized each time you try to tell it coherently to one person at one time.  That’s what it is to be human. We are complicated beings.  People who have developed a habit of looking inwards with curiosity (not judgment!) learn to grow comfort around this paradoxical truth.  And they learn to love the mystery of the journey, largely by celebrating the fluctuations along the path.

alternative to a new year's resolution

New Year’s Resolutions Often Create the Opposite of Change

The tradition of setting New Year’s Resolutions has taken many different forms since it began over 2,000 years ago.  Today’s resolutions seem inevitably to address some perceived personal flaw or imperfection.  The underlying message is often, “Next year I will do better.” Setting a goal to do “better” only continues a cycle of not feeling worthy or good enough in the moment.   It perpetuates the habit of scanning yourself for ways you are failing.   Only two outcomes are possible with this kind of resolution:

  1. You reach your goal and believe in the notion of a temporary feeling of worth for yourself (meaning you believe you are okay now that you reached your goal of becoming “better,” but this worth could be lost as soon as you perceive evidence that you aren’t maintaining the “better” you.)
  2. You don’t reach your goal and continue to feel bad about your perceived “imperfections”

In short, many New Year’s Resolutions only serve to reinforce our habits that keep us feeling lacking in some way.

Rebuilding our Foundation: A New New Year’s Resolution

Such New Year’s Resolutions also perpetuate what I call the Home Improvement Myth.  When we view our bodies and our lives as something that needs constant improvement and upkeep, we miss out on how we humans actually learn and grow.  The truth is much more complicated and beautiful.  Just as a tree is complete in the moment and still continues to grow, so too are you complete and growing at the same time. To see beyond the Home Improvement Myth try this:

Replace “better” with “growth.”

Replace “goal” with “intention.”

These small changes in words can create large changes in how you view yourself and your life.  By swapping “better” for “growth” you can let go of the idea that you aren’t okay in the moment and have somewhere to go, yet still hold your dreams of continuing to develop who you are.  By swapping “goal” with “intention” you can let go of the threat of failure, yet gain a guiding star for more skillfully navigating each present moment.  By swapping these words you gain a kinder more comfortable existence in the moment without giving up any of your ambitions.

Building A Tree House By the Light of Your Guiding Star

For the last couple of years I have celebrated the New Year by choosing an intention rather than a resolution.  The intention acts as a guiding star to move towards rather than a measuring stick for judging myself.  My intention is a word I take with me for the next 365 days.  To keep the word safe and shiny I usually don’t share it with anyone.  Choosing a word has been an interesting and rich experience, leading to a lot more change than I would have expected before I tried this myself.  Here is what has happened when I have carried a word with me for the year:

  • I’ve gained new insights into how the mind works over time.  Deep meaningful change occurs on a different time scale than we usually acknowledge in this culture.  Holding a single word rather than a to-do list of change gave me to a deeper appreciation for how humans grow.  We can’t rush change.  But if we are lucky we can observe it.
  • I’ve gained new insights into how knowledge slowly matures into wisdom.  Reflecting on one word for the year, I can look back and see how the meaning of the word is so much deeper and layered than I ever could have guessed at the beginning.
  • I’ve gained new insights into the power of priming the mind.  We see what we look for.  When looking for evidence that we aren’t good enough, we will always find it.  But this “evidence” is actually just an illusion.  It no more true than saying our skin isn’t green enough. Choosing a word can help us reorient what we look for, and help us see the moments when we are already accessing the wisdom we carry within us.
  • “Fall down nine times, stand up ten” says a Chinese proverb. I’ve deepened my understanding that we can’t fail.  “Failure” is just a judgment.  Saying we have “failed” comes mostly from two bad habits. First, we say we failed when we carry an expectation that things should be different than they are. Second, we say we failed when we have given up.  Having a word as a guiding star can help us create new good habits of always standing up and moving forward, no matter how many times we fall down.

Choosing Your Word

Take a few quiet moments and close your eyes.  Take a few slow deep breaths.  Allow your mind to wander over the past year without judgment.  Some memories may be wonderful.  Some may make you wince.  No need to linger on any one memory.  Just allow thoughts and feelings to arise.  Now gently open to the deep part of who you are (it’s there, even if you’ve never seen it before) and allow it to share a word that could be used as a guiding star for the next part of your journey.  The word may first come as an image or a color.  Stay present, breathing slowly and deeply, for whatever arises.

Now this is your word so chose whatever your heart desires.  But I suggest you push yourself to have a word more substantial than “Fabulous” “Glittery” or “Fierce.”  (Lovely words, of course!  Perhaps just not what is best suited for a New Years Intention.)  My favorite intention words or phrases are descriptors instead of directives, although some directive phrases are also wonderful.  Descriptors create good habits of gently reorienting us to the present moment rather than harshly jerking our mind to the present.  How we do something is as important as what we do.  So for example:

     Directive    Descriptor

     Be Still    Stillness

         Pay attention    Paying attention

Be grateful    Gratitude

Here is what I have seen.  You may have found your word when you think of one and then feel a twinge of dread around it.  I have seen that happen many times, to myself and to others.  I think this happens because there is a part of you that already knows your word – that’s your wisdom and inseparable goodness that lives within you.  And there is another part of you that wants to choose ANYTHING other than your word – that is the part that’s fearful of change and challenge.

So choosing a word may take a bit of bravery.  But remember.  This activity is the opposite of a goal.  You can’t fail.  This activity is creating a guiding star to have with you for the rest of the year.  If you have having trouble finding your word, here are some you may want to consider:

Action

Patience

Stillness

Restraint

Embodied

Openness

Movement

Truthfulness

Deattachment

Impermanence

This too shall pass

There is no right answer

Mind Clear, Heart Open

Back to the present moment

Letting go of what is ready to be let go

Fearlessness means going through the fear

In this moment I have everything I need

Observation without judgment

Interconnectedness

Gratitude

Balance
Wisdom

Courage

Kindness

Curiosity

Gentleness

Acceptance

Compassion

Acceptance

Confidence

Lean into life

Lean into fear

Relax, Relate, Release

Harmony instead of resolution

My body knows things my mind does not

Will this next action expand or shrink my horizons?

Choose one and be done

Be with what is

Connection

Integration

Listening

Enough

Clarity

Breathe

Always move forward

Once you have your word or phrase, just hold it with you.  Consider how it might apply in different situations.  Be curious about it.  Consider how you might act differently depending on whether you are thinking of this word.  There is no right way to use a guiding star.  For one of my words I made a little doodle so I could just draw it in front of me when I was bored or feeling a bit lost.  Just observe how your mind moves when you bring your attention to your word.  The good news is you can’t fail.  But you can grow.

Happy New Year, everyone!

This game is like Pong meets Paintbrush!  What a great game to help keep your mind company as you hunker down as a big emotional wave rolls through:

http://clown-crown.up.seesaa.net/image/perticle.swf

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Not sure what I mean by distress tolerance tools?  Click here to learn more.

Want some more suggestions of distress tolerance activites?  Click here for more suggestions.

Picture 484

Here is the beginning of a post I just put up on Medium.  You can read the full article here.

“Reading Harriet Brown’s critique of my profession felt like someone was pouring salt on a wound I didn’t know I had. I recently went into private practice as a therapist, leaving behind the world of research in clinical psychology with mixed emotions of elation (no more bosses!) and grief (goodbye dear research). It’s been a tough transition and Ms. Brown’s epic failure to understand the challenges faced by therapists is both hurtful to me and harmful to those who might take her critiques at face value.

Ms. Brown is concerned that patients are not getting the therapy they need largely because we therapists choose to disregard science and instead like to think of therapy as an art. Now I wholeheartedly agree that not all therapists are competent (some astonishingly so). But this common critique of my profession is filled with misunderstandings, errors, and straw men that lead the people away from a deeper understanding of the complexities that exist in the development and delivery of evidence-based mental-health care. Let’s take a critical look at some reasons why patients often do not receive therapy based solely on what the science says to do…..”

These days I just giggle to myself when people still carry the notion that folks with autism aren’t socially connected or lack empathy.  Some of the most sensitive and socially observant people I know are on the autism spectrum.  This video is made by a guy with autism explaining to neurotypicals why we just might be the oddballs.  Spot.  On.

“It is impossible to innovate without taking risks, and the fact that Google is more successful than most of its rivals is directly related to its willingness to take chances.”

Read full article on Google’s business strategy of failure here.

Smile File, part deux

April 29, 2013

Completely unrelated to my earlier post, I just came across this little guy today.  So adorable my toes ache watching this!

Smile File*

April 29, 2013

Interspecies Love and Christian the Lion

Have you seen this one already?  It makes me feel all sorts of positive emotions every time I see it.  But be warned if you haven’t seen this before – yes, you may smile but you may also feel your heart swell with love and compassion and awe.  Eyes have been known to get leaky.

We are just one note in the vast harmony of existence but the grind of our daily lives can leave us only hearing our lone tune.  Well-being rests upon the wisdom that we are part of something much greater.  One of the surest ways for me to add some positive experiences to my day – and to help me remember that my note is just one in billion zillion – is to see a story about connection between species.  It almost feels like these stories get processed differently in my brain – bypassing my often annoyingly active reason mind and going straight to the seat of wisdom and compassion.

One mention about the tortoise and young hippo becoming friends or a quick look through this tumblr page and my mind relaxes a bit, comforted in remembering that life is so much more complicated, interconnected, and full of wonder than we will ever be able to see with just our eyes alone.  This story about Christian the Lion is one of my favorites.

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*To learn about the benefits of introducing positive emotions into our everyday lives, visit Dr. Barbara Fredrickson’s lab webpage.   This is just one small example.  Please remember.  I am not suggesting to ignore uncomfortable emotions.   We need them too!  What I am suggesting is that we can seek out experiences that might add a smile, even when we are in pain.

Yep

April 19, 2013

what screws us up